World Travel with a Twist of Zen - Fields of Indulgence  
 
Arguably the most important concept in all of Buddhism is that of the 3 jewels - Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Each one embodies a different aspect of spiritual life. The Buddha represents the idea that a human can fully awaken to life in this moment. The Dharma is the teachings that help facilitate this awakening and the Sangha is the community that supports each other in their efforts. Often the sangha is more narrowly viewed as the people you practice with (i.e. the members of your temple), but in actuality it can be viewed as the whole community of man.
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The view from the slow boat on the way to Luang Prabang
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No holds barred water fight
Our time in Laos has reaffirmed our faith in this community, as we have never been more openly accepted into a culture than we have here. It started with our invitation to Dett’s village for the housewarming party and ceremonies (see previous post), but that was just the beginning. After two days on a slow boat down the Mekong River, we arrived in Luang Prabang, the capital of ancient Laos, where the whole country gathers to celebrate Lao New Year (Bi Mai Lao). A seasonal water celebration held prior to the rainy season, it originally focused on the ceremonial bathing of the Buddha, cleaning of one’s household, and the giving and receiving of blessings to one’s neighbors. It has since evolved into a week-long water fight on the streets where little kids and young adults pour buckets of water onto passersby while dancing and playing. Those old enough, drink copious amounts of Beerlao and jump into pick-up trucks with their friends, traveling through the streets, singing, playing makeshift drums and cymbals, and spraying water (sometimes colored bright red or blue) and cornstartch through the air.

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Hundreds of Sand Stupas are created on New Year's Day and line the banks of the Mekong. The cornstarch that tops them is also liberally thrown onto wet passersby!
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Impromptu Picnic
Our first day here was New Year’s Eve and we spent the day visiting the beautiful Kuang Si Waterfalls, a multi-tiered natural beauty with azure teal swimming holes lying along its path. The waterfalls are also home to a Bear Rescue Center, a home for Asiatic and Malayan Sun Bears who have been rescued from poachers or Chinese bile extracting factories (read more about that by clicking link above and see a video of the bears playing by clicking here). As we walked amidst the falls, we noticed many Lao families sitting enjoying picnics as the swarms of tourists snapped photos. We wandered across a small footbridge for a photo and saw a family sitting around a table, beckoning us with their hands to join them. Unsure of what was happening, we tentatively walked over to the table only to be given a couple of cold cans of Beerlao and an invitation to sit. When they found out that we had learned a bit about Lao language, culture, and food, things really opened up as they encouraged us to sample delicious local delicacies like bamboo shoot stew, stir fried Mekong Riverweed, and fried pork bits with sticky rice and home-made chili sauce or “jaew mak pet”. What amazed us the most was that even with many tourists walking around the falls, this family didn’t just discount all of us as foreigners, but actually made an effort to connect. 

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The beautiful Kuang Si Waterfalls
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New Friends in Laos!
Returning to the city, college age Lao kids were dancing on the street and drinking beers. We wished them a happy new year in their language, and were quickly offered a communal glass of beer along with a bucketful of water down our shirts! The last several days have been full of such experiences. Whether it be joining an impromptu Lao dance party or being invited to sit and try different local foods, we have felt overwhelmed by generosity and hospitality. It has made us realize how life in more developed countries may make us more guarded and less prone to such open sharing, especially with total strangers with which you can barely speak, like our Lao friends were doing.

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Neda looks dazed after getting water paint smacked on her face while driving in the back of a Thai pick-up that we hopped on for a ride ! Seeing that we participated heavily, we got some beers offered to us as well!
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Neda's watermelon and blessing bracelet
With this insight, came inspiration. How can we create community wherever we travel in the world, be it in faraway lands or in our own backyard?  How can we foster a spirit of inclusiveness that breeds generosity and love instead of isolation and self-focus? We decided that one avenue was to simply start being more generous. In this spirit, Neda carved a watermelon which we presented to the family who runs our guesthouse here as a New Year’s gift. We then found ourselves invited to participate in their Baci ceremony, where we exchange blessings and bracelets with their 93 year old grandfather. For that moment in time, a brief community had been formed where we connected past culture and language. We became a part of that family’s sangha. We believe there are opportunities in our daily life to constantly be creating community in this way, even if it is just for a fleeting moment. For the Buddha, the sangha eventually came to mean the whole community of man. Leaving Laos we feel we have better understanding of what sangha means and a renewed vigor to create it wherever we go.

What can you do today to connect with someone you might otherwise not – to create community where before there was none? To see our wonderful pictures of the New Year’s Celebration here in Laos, click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjzuYKKt

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Women washing novice monks as they process through the city - a symbol for washing the Buddha and preparing for a New Year
 
    “But Neda, what about our plans to head to Luang Namtha and then Nong Khiaw for the riverboat journey on the Ou River? If we head back to Houay Xai with Dett we’ll be totally backtracking…"
     “Well, Dett said we could stay at his place, eat with his family – see real Lao life! So f&*! it, let’s do it!”
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The village
 As travelers we all crave “authentic experiences.” We’ll pay big bucks to hike out to a remote hill tribe village to see how real hill tribe people live. But the problem of course is that if enough people do that, the village slowly changes to cater only to tourists – losing the authenticity that people wanted to come for in the first place. Neda and I have avoided such excursions in our belief that you can’t pay for an authentic experience – you have to let it come to you. When Dett invited us to come stay with him we realized that this was our chance and that we needed to be flexible enough in mind to let go of our “plans” and let things unfold as they may.

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The little munchkins
And boy did they unfold! We motorbiked about 30 km to Dett’s village where Dett suddenly veered off the road and brought us through a dirt track to his house. Dett’s village is all ethnically Khamu – their language is a Mon-Khmer language totally different from Lao. Many of the kids didn’t speak any Lao because they learn it later in school. As we unpacked from the bike Dett went to tell the town elder that he had invited foreigners into the village (luckily we were approved) as we stood around being smiled at (and stared at) by what seemed to be the whole town! The little girls of the village took an immediate affinity to Neda, who they kept calling “swuay mak” (very, very beautiful in Thai learned from Thai TV shows). Their endless giggling held the innocence of a time seemingly lost in more developed parts of the world.

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Traditional Lao meal
For dinner and breakfast we ate communally with Dett, his family and friends. This involves sitting on the floor around several plates and bowls of food. Every two people get some glutinous sticky rice to share between them. You roll the sticky rice into a ball and dip it in the sauces or eat it with a piece of meat. The traditional food was amazing: boiled bamboo and forest ginger that you peel before dipping into a dip of hand roasted and smashed chilies along with local herbs and sugar. We also had roasted green eggplant smashed with chilies and herbs – like a Lao Baba Ganoush! They even had an herb they added to their fish soup that took away all the fishiness and left a delicious tasting stock! Perhaps even more interesting than the food was the style of drinking. In Khamu culture, there are only one or two glasses even with a group of 10 in the circle. When a person finishes drinking their glass of BeerLao, it is filled up and passed to the next person. So as you eat together you don’t have your own glass or your own plate. Dett said that this keeps their community strong as they share everything together.

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Jeff teaching the girls yoga
After breakfast, we put on our ceremonial clothes (“sorry Dett, we only have jeans and a few shirts to our name right now!”) and prepared for the coming festivities. In Khamu culture, the building of a new house in the village is an event of near equivalence to a marriage. Invitations are sent out and hundreds are invited. The family and friends set up tables, a sound system (which was hauled in on a tractor), and lots of food and drink for the coming guests. Right before we headed to the party, some of our friends from the Gibbon Experience arrived via taxi to join in. Dett had invited them before leaving the day before and they couldn’t resist joining. They even changed their plane tickets to make it work!

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Sticky rice wine jar and well wishes dish
The party was a fantastic time. It started with lunch and lots of Lao people offering us shots of lao-lao, a fiery moonshine distilled from sticky rice. Little did I know that one is supposed to take a sip to be polite before dumping the remainder on the ground. Oh well…After the lao-lao and some sort of fruit whisky, we were ushered into the house to offer blessings to the mother and father who own the house. Everyone put some small amount of money or candy onto a bowl and then knelt down together. You then tie a bracelet made of many white cotton strings to the homeowner’s wrist as you wish them well. They then tie a bracelet to your wrist to return the wishes. To complete the connection, they bring out a giant stone jar of fermented rice wine with numerous winding straws protruding from it. Everyone drinks together from the jar until it runs dry.

After the blessing, a little band struck up inside the house with symbols and drums for the sword ceremony. In this ceremony, an elder Lao man wields two bamboo swords in an intricate dance that is meant to warn evil spirits to stay away from the home and the family who lives there. We were able to record a short video of the dance - http://flic.kr/p/bxF8W9. As we sat watching this glimpse of culture, I was overwhelmed at what I was experiencing and so grateful to have been included. As if that wasn’t enough, we all went outside and were taught to dance in the traditional Lao style (which involves a lot of wrist rotation). A local woman approached me and asked me to dance and we all got out there and had a great time. Luckily, we had been given some lessons in Lao style dance by the little girls earlier in the morning so it wasn’t too hard to pick up! Jeff captured the dance on video, see it here - http://flic.kr/p/bLhLTZ.
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Cat, Toun & girlfriend and a guest
Dancing, revelry, and a bit of Karaoke ensued. We sat at many different tables with people from all over the village, communicating with broken Lao and hand gestures. And it was wonderful. To be accepted at such a deep level despite our many differences is a fundamentally human thing to do. Our cultures couldn’t be more different in many regards, but the ability of human beings to form community and share joy together gives me hope when I am cynical about how alienated we have become from each other. Authentic experiences can be hard to find and it can be tempting to pay in order to try to get them. But like all good things, patience, flexibility, and a willingness to participate wholeheartedly will usually lead to things unfolding just as they need to.

To see all the fun pictures from the party, you can click here - http://flic.kr/s/aHsjyTBVQG.



 

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The Gibbon Experience is located about 3 hours north of Houay Xai in the remote Bokeo Nature Reserve in Laos. Our guide told us that the reserve has essentially been created by the money that the Gibbon Experience has brought into the area, saving about 300,000 acres of land from logging and poaching. Despite all this, only about 30 gibbons (5 families) still remain in the reserve, having been hunted by locals prior to the reserve being established.

Our journey started in the back of a pick-up truck, crossing streams and heavy jungle on a dirt track road. At the end of the road was a simple village where we unloaded and hiked about an hour and a half into the jungle. The Gibbon Experience consists of 7 treehouses strung together by thousands of meters of zipline. To reach our treehouse, we stepped into our harness and jumped out over the jungle – flying at about 20-30mph over the canopy below. The sweeping views of the surrounding mountains were enough to take your breath away – that is if the 300 meters of ziplining hadn’t done that already!

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Jeff zipping through the high valleys
Check out the first video Jeff took while zipping - http://flic.kr/p/bxsJAQ. The jungle is so beautiful and almost hard to gather all of it in the horizon!
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Dett and Toun at treehouse 5
The evening found us sharing a circular tree house with 6 other travelers (from Canada, New Zealand, England, and Denmark). The treehouse loomed out over a valley about a hundred feet above the jungle floor. It was complete with running water (including a shower with a spectacular view), solar electricity, and a cool box stocked with beers. Our guides Toun and Dett would bring dinner over from the ground based kitchen and our evenings consisted of watching the sunset, playing cards, and sharing traveling stories. Toun and Dett normally work building the treehouses, but due to some guides being away, we were incredibly lucky to have them lead our group. They are auto-didactic, having taught themselves English just by being at the Gibbon Experience – the only guides in the whole program that do speak English!

After a stormy night that left us wondering how stable the treehouse was, dawn started to crack above the mountains and the magic happened. Echoing calls floated over the tree tops as the Gibbons began their morning singing ritual. We rose from our beds and gazed out at the tallest tree on the horizon and there they were! Their song to the newly awakened day was almost like a police siren as they swung dexterously from limb to limb. Eventually, they made their way to other trees and we caught sight of the female Gibbon – with a beautiful gold hue to her fur (the males are all black). Watching these wild creatures as we shared the tree tops with them gave us an immense feeling of spaciousness and connection. If you want to hear the gibbons’ calls, check out this video we recorded - http://flic.kr/p/bxsJB5.

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Our shower! The views were sweeping even while showering!
For the Gibbons the jungle is their playground and they need that open space to be wild and authentic. For us, the jungle was a practice in “reducing our filter” – living closer to the moment as it unfolds rather than being stuck in our heads with the past and present. Ziplining, with its beauty and adrenaline, brought us into the moment as did observing the Gibbons. The jungle itself with its endless assortment of sights, sounds, and smells is always inviting us to tune into what’s happening now. In those moments of connection, where we do find the space to really fly free, it was apparent to me how essential that experience is to staying sane.

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  After 2 days of zipping around the jungle, we hiked back out and expected to continue to Luang Namtha in Northern Laos. But as we were walking Dett said, “you know if you have time, Toun’s girlfriend and her family are having a big house warming party in my village tomorrow and we’d love you to come stay with us.” Neda and I looked at each other, smiled, and prepared for the next crazy turn in this journey…to be continued in our next post! For pictures and all the fun videos we took ziplining, check out our flickr page - http://flic.kr/s/aHsjzrPyvv.